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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Social Harmony and Toxic Chemicals in China

According to the New York Times in 2012, the Chinese had become increasingly willing “to take to the streets despite the perils of openly challenging the country’s authoritarian government.” Even more surprising, government officials had actually acquiesced in some notable cases. Given the raw nature of power, particularly under authoritarian auspices, revolution rather than gradual reform may still be the most likely means by which democracy can bloom under the golden, albeit hazy, sun.

In October 2012, local officials in the coastal city of Ningbo promised “to halt the expansion of a petrochemical plant after thousands of demonstrators [had] clashed with the police during three days of protests that spotlighted the public’s mounting discontent with industrial pollution. . . . The project, an $8.8 billion expansion of a refinery owned by the state-run behemoth Sinopec, was eagerly backed by the local government, which [had] been promoting a vast industrial zone outside Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people in Zhejiang Province. Residents were particularly unnerved by one major component of the project: the production of paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical known as PX that is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of polyester, paints and plastic bottles. Many residents [contended] that the concentration of polluting factories in the Ningbo Chemical Industrial Zone [had] led to a surge in cancer and other illnesses.” Lest it be assumed the officials had suddenly “got religion” as far as democracy is concerned, the New York Times provides a more realistic explanation:
“Although local officials were undoubtedly alarmed by the size and ferocity of the protests, their decision to bend so quickly was also probably influenced by the coming series of meetings that will determine China’s next generation of leaders. The ruling Communist Party, always eager to keep a lid on public discontent, is especially nervous about any disruptions that might mar the 18th Party Congress.”
Culturally, the Chinese officials—like the Chinese people generally—undoubtedly felt the need to protect or restore social harmony. At close range, loud protests ring out like a frontal assault on such harmony. The protests began “when farmers blocked a road near the refinery, grew over the weekend as thousands of students and middle-class residents converged on a downtown square carrying handmade banners and wearing surgical masks painted with skull and bones. . . . (T)he demonstrations turned violent when riot police fired tear gas and began to beat and drag away protesters. At one point, according to people who were there, marchers tossed bricks and bottles at the police. At least 100 people were detained, according to some estimates, although most were later released.” Accordingly, the immediate instinct of the officials would have been to do whatever would be most likely to stop the disruption as soon as possible.
In the long term, however, social harmony requires some degree of fit between public policy and popular sentiment. While not necessarily the will of the people, the intensity of political protests can provide some indication of the extent of a breach or gap. Whether by deflating or squashing, short-circuiting a protest at its outset in a dire attempt to restore the appearance of social harmony can mean that public officials lose touch with the popular mood and thus “fly blind.” The result could be a revolution in ten or twenty years, the ferocity of which could come as a complete surprise to the party officials.
Put another way, the apparent success of protests could belie the more subterranean possibility that public officials were still impervious to public demands. “In 2007, protesters in the coastal city of Xiamen, in Fujian Province, successfully forced the relocation of a PX plant that had been planned just 10 miles from downtown. In August 2012, officials in Dalian, in northeast China, announced that they would shut down a PX plant there after thousands of residents angrily confronted the riot police.” However, as of the fourth quarter of 2012, that factory was still operating. “We’ve seen the same pattern over and over again,” said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Ignoring public concerns leads to confrontation. We can’t resolve all our environmental issues through street action. The cost is just too high.” That is to say, protests do not guarantee that government officials will heed popular sentiment, and the result of continued protests could be violent.
Seeming to acquiesce could simply be a strategy by which to assuage the public. “The announcement is just a way to ease tensions,” said Yu Xiaoming, a critic of the plant who took part in negotiations with the authorities on Sunday. Even if paraxylene is not produced in Ningbo, the chemical could be quietly made elsewhere. A pattern of such apparent placating, moreover, could give everyone the false impression of social and political cohesion between the Chinese people and the government. Minimizing broader knowledge that the protests had taken place only contributes to the misleading picture of social harmony instead of strife. Although Ningbo residents “held aloft smartphones and computer tablets and flooded microblog sites with images and vivid descriptions of the running battles with the police,” for example, the “Chinese news media carried no reports of the protests.”
In spite of the appearance being constructed by the apparent “listening” by government officials and the government-media censorship, pressure could nonetheless build and possibly erupt in contagious strife spiraling uncontrollably into full-blown revolution. That it would seem to come out of nowhere would only heighten the fear on both sides, and thus the sense of a lack of control and related violence. Any apparent gradual “opening up” toward democracy, as in permitting the residents of Hong Kong to vote for some offices, would be only on the surface, and even misleading.
One might imagine a flight-control tower with radar screens overstating the distance between planes in the air. Flight-control might dismiss the concerns of the pilots and even permit more planes into the area. A mid-air collision would come as a complete surprise to everyone, even though such an outcome would be more likely due to the perceptual misalignment. In terms of China, a full-blown revolution could be extremely disruptive not only within China, but also for the world given China’s sheer size and economic role in the global economy. Gradual reform in China is in everyone’s interest—even those officials interested in maintaining social harmony. 


Andrew Jacobs, “Protests Over Chemical Plant Force Chinese Officials to Back Down,” The New York Times, October 29, 2012.